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Super Here For...the Deep Psychology of Superman

Super Here For...the Deep Psychology of Superman

By Sydney Bucksbaum Friday, November 30th, 2018

It’s a great time for Superman fans, with important events taking place in SUPERMAN, ACTION COMICS, SUPERGIRL and more every month. To help us stay on top of it, writer Sydney Bucksbaum shares what she’s most excited about and why in this new monthly Superman column.

To anyone who says comic books are just for kids, I'd like to direct them to the final page of HEROES IN CRISIS #2. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the existence of Sanctuary was teased in multiple comic books before the start of this limited series, it was finally introduced proper in the emotionally heavy HEROES IN CRISIS #1 as the brainchild of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. It’s a place for beleaguered heroes to unpack their trauma and heal. A safe haven for those suffering from not only physical injuries, but also psychological ones. Sanctuary opened up the dialogue on what it means to be a hero and the toll it can take on anyone, even someone as indestructible and perfect as Superman.

In the three issues of Heroes in Crisis released so far, fans have watched as this superhero safe house was attacked, with a body count that’s horrifyingly severe (and permanent?). Did Harley Quinn do it? What part did Booster Gold play in the massacre? Why is this happening? All valid questions. But what stopped me in my tracks while reading Heroes in Crisis #2 was one page. Nine panels. One of the superhero confessions given to Sanctuary's camera.

Superman laid his soul bare, and it was the most vulnerable and honest I have ever seen the iconic character.

Watching Superman talk about living his life as two separate identities just one page after Lois was contacted by the mysterious "Puddlers" with a snippet of Arsenal's Sanctuary confessions along with a note that "more truths will be coming" was frightening enough. His secret identity as Clark Kent is definitely being threatened. But that wasn't what blew me away during his session.

What really threw me was watching Superman dive deep into his own flawed psychology of what he believes a hero must be—"perfect"—and why he doesn't seem to believe that he fits the bill. In just nine short panels, Supes went through his complicated history of growing up as a "Kansas kid," Clark Kent, "Ma and Pa's boy." But as he grew into his alien powers (and decided he wanted to use his powers), he created the alter ego of Superman. To keep each identity separate and safe from the other, he "adjusted" each one.

At this point, all Superman fans know this like they know their own names. "Clark was clumsy. Superman was reliable." The hero and the secret identity couldn't be more opposite. But what is decidedly new information here is Clark's own admission that as he "adjusted" each identity to be further away from the other, he started to lose the sense of who he actually was. "Is Clark Superman trying to be flawed? Or is Superman Clark trying to be better?"

A crisis of identity is hardly a new thing for a superhero. But Heroes in Crisis #2 takes it one step farther by unpacking the psychology of Superman to the point where his "perfect" veneer starts to slip and fans can finally see the true man underneath, without the glasses and tie or crest and cape. By wearing two different masks all his life, Superman himself doesn't even know who he is on the inside. This isn't PTSD from a near-world-ending battle, or guilt or grief over not being able to save someone. This is life-long trauma that he hasn't allowed himself to face or talk about because it's "embarrassing." It reveals that the world’s most perfect superhero is…well, not perfect.

Cracking open the issues plaguing Superman's psyche is a gamble that's paying off, and we’re only a few issues into this limited series (for much more on it, be sure to read Meg Downey’s breakdowns of each new issue). The Man of Steel is finally allowing himself to be vulnerable in a way that could inspire others to seek help, even if they previously thought that makes them imperfect or flawed. Facing your issues and allowing yourself to accept help is one of the bravest things you can do.

It turns out even Superman needs help sometimes, and he's finally willing to admit it. And all it takes is simply talking about it. This isn't a problem he can punch his way out of, and it goes to show that violence, even in comic books, isn't the answer. That's a lesson that everyone can and should learn, not just kids.

So, if you ever try and say that comic books are just for kids, I would once again like to direct you to the final page of Heroes in Crisis #2 for one of the most mature and nuanced arguments advocating for mental health work I've ever seen in pop culture. This isn't just kid stuff.

Sydney Buckbaum covers movies, TV and comics for, and writes about Superman every month in her column, "Super Here For..." Follow her on Twitter at @SydneyBucksbaum.